Florida’s Thanksgiving week jaunt down to the Caribbean didn’t quite go as expected.
Florida began the holiday week with ample opportunities to earn marquee wins. The stacked fi…
The Gators had their fair share of opportunities to down Oklahoma in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, but missed free throws and rebounding deficiencies cost the team a tough 65-60 loss.
They bounced back against a porous Stanford defense to the tune of a 72-49 win, but in the third game against Butler, a disastrous second half of shooting — in which UF only hit eight of its 28 shots — ensured Florida would drop its second winnable game of the tournament.
Now the Gators (3-3) return to Gainesville sitting at .500 and lacking a signature win. Tuesday’s game against North Florida (2-4) won’t provide them with a chance to beat a tournament-quality team, but it will give UF something it desperately needs — a breather.
Coach Mike White called Florida’s rigorous non-conference schedule “ridiculous” before the season started, and it’s easy to see why. All three of the Gators’ losses have come against teams that could reasonably find themselves in the Big Dance come March.
Playing three games in three days clearly took a toll on the team, especially considering the inexperience coming off the bench. A few days off before a much easier matchup could be exactly what UF needs.
Each time White’s squad has been punched in the mouth this season, whether it was from an FSU defense that looked a step faster than the Gators all night or from a stellar scorer like OU’s Christian James, it has faltered.
Florida has one more chance to get things right against UNF before the meat of the non-conference schedule begins, and getting things right starts with the offense.
Lengthy scoring droughts have plagued the Gators throughout White’s tenure, often coming at the most inopportune times. It cost UF several games a year ago, and it might have cost Florida a big win against the Butler Bulldogs on Friday.
The Ospreys out of the Atlantic Sun have regressed since their first NCAA tournament appearance in 2015. Coach Matthew Driscoll’s program made it to the NIT in 2016, but has had losing records the last two years.
This meeting will mark the second year in a row that UNF will travel to UF. The Gators won last year’s game 108-68.
Senior guard Jalen Hudson scored 12 points off the bench in that game. The Virginia Tech transfer asserted himself as a trustworthy shooter early last season with performances like he had against the Ospreys. Now, he is entrenched as the vocal leader of his team.
However, sometimes even the leaders need a wake-up call. White chose to start true freshman guard Noah Locke over Hudson against Stanford and Butler. Locke demonstrated some of his sharpshooting acumen in the Bahamas, scoring 16 points total in his two starts and shooting 4-for-11 from behind the arc.
Hudson, meanwhile, has struggled to find the court all year. His 18.2 minutes per game are the lowest of any Florida starter. The Gators’ go-to scorer is only averaging seven points per contest.
UNF’s defense should be exploitable for the Gators. The Ospreys are giving up 78 points a game, including allowances of 87 and 89 points in losses to Penn State and Wright State, respectively. If Hudson is going to find his stroke before conference play, it has to happen against North Florida.
Things don’t get any easier for the Gators in the month of December. They take on West Virginia at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 4 and No. 11 Michigan State at home on Dec. 8.
Given the erratic and experimental rotations White has employed so far, as well as the fact that three true freshmen are contributing significantly, Florida is a team that should improve with time.
But if it doesn’t improve quickly, it could squander all of its opportunities for quality non-conference wins. And if the Gators go winless against tournament-caliber opponents, they just may play themselves out of March Madness before they can hit their stride.
Follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno or contact him at [email protected].